Djokovic rules again
NEW YORK Bothered by pain in his back, ribs and cramping legs, Novak Djokovic was face-down beside the court in Arthur Ashe Stadium, getting massaged by a trainer.
Having dropped a set against defending champion Rafael Nadal, Djokovic’s grip on the U.S. Open final appeared to be starting to slip away and, worse, his body was breaking down.
His confidence? That, more than any particular stroke, is what Djokovic credits with transforming him from a top player to a great one—and it never wavered one bit Monday night.
Producing a nearly perfect performance to match his nearly perfect season, the No. 1-ranked Djokovic returned brilliantly, whipped winners from all angles and beat No. 2 Nadal 6-2, 6-4, 6-7 (3), 6-1 in a match chock-full of lengthy, mesmerizing points to earn the first U.S. Open championship of his career and third Grand Slam trophy of 2011.
“In big matches, the winner is decided by small margins, a couple points. I guess the winner is the one who believes in victory more,” said Djokovic, who is 64-2 with 10 tournament titles.
“I guess it just clicked in my head. Through the last couple of years, I didn’t change my game in any major way. ... But I’m hitting shots that maybe I wasn’t hitting,” he explained. “I’m going for it. I’m more aggressive.”
It’s sure working, particularly against the man he replaced atop the rankings, Nadal.
A year ago, it was Nadal who won three major titles, including by beating Djokovic in the final at Flushing Meadows. That defeat helped Djokovic realize he was being too passive at key moments on his sport’s most important stages and set him on a path that’s led to one of the greatest seasons in the history of men’s tennis—or any sport, for that matter.
“I’ve had an amazing year,” Djokovic said, “and it keeps going.”
Nadal led their head-to-head series 16-7 at the end of 2010. And since? Djokovic is 6-0 against Nadal this year, all in tournament finals—three on hard courts, including Monday; two on clay; and one on grass at Wimbledon. Djokovic also won the Australian Open in January, and is only the sixth man in the 40-plus years of the Open era to win three major titles in a single season.
“Obviously I’m disappointed,” Nadal said, “but you know what this guy is doing is unbelievable.”
With a couple of months left, Djokovic can set his sights on the best win-loss record in the modern era: John McEnroe went 82-3 in 1984, although that only included two Grand Slam titles, because he lost in the French Open final and didn’t enter the Australian Open. Roger Federer was 81-4 in 2005 with two majors, exiting twice in the semifinals. Rod Laver (1962, 1969) and Don Budge (1938) are the only men to win all four Grand Slam tournaments in a year.
The biggest change Nadal has noticed in Djokovic?
“He’s confident enough in every moment to keep believing in one more ball, one more ball,” Nadal said. “His forehand is not more painful than before. His backhand is not more painful than before. Serve’s the same.”
Of all of Djokovic’s skills, the one that separated him the most Monday was his return. He repeatedly sent serves back at Nadal’s feet, forcing errors or giving Djokovic control of the point. That helped Djokovic accumulate an astounding 26 break points and convert 11.
More remarkable than all those breaks of serve was the way Djokovic seemed to break the will of the reliably relentless and indefatigable Nadal. At the end of the first set, when Djokovic reeled off six games in a row, and at the end of the match, Nadal wasn’t even chasing Djokovic’s shots.
“It was a tough match,” said Nadal, who owns 10 major titles. “Physical, mental, everything.”
Yes, and Djokovic turned this U.S. Open final rematch into something of a mismatch.
Djokovic’s 43-match winning streak ended with a semifinal loss to Federer in the French Open semifinals. The only other blemish on Djokovic’s 2011 record was a loss to Andy Murray in last month’s Cincinnati Masters final, where Djokovic stopped playing while trailing, citing a painful shoulder.
On Monday, Djokovic became only the second man to defeat Federer and Nadal during the course of one Grand Slam tournament. Juan Martin del Potro did it en route to the 2009 U.S. Open title.
The final was delayed a day to Monday by rain for the fourth consecutive U.S. Open.